Kirby: Joseph Smith’s Carthage gun, Nauvoo’s ‘Old Sow’ cannon — now that’s my kind of religion

(Photo courtesy Church History Library) Views of veteran artillerymen of the Nauvoo Legion posed with the "Old Sow," a cannon that was brought across the Plains with Brigham Young's pioneer company.

Irony in life cannot be measured. A month after being ordered off LDS Church property for saying I had a gun when I didn’t, I was invited back onto church property and actually given a gun. Several, in fact.

The sponsor for my latest visit was an actual general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By way of thanking him for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I shall refer to him only as Elder C. Neutruch.

First, because that’s not his real name, and he doesn’t need being publicly associated with the likes of me. Finally, because I have no intention of putting myself in a position of being called on a punitive church archive mission to the Salt Lake Valley Landfill.

For the visit, I also owe thanks to Church History Museum Director Alan D. Johnson and artifact curator Alan Morrell, who not only let me handle the guns but also didn’t call church security on me.

Through the years, large numbers of firearms have been donated to the Church History Museum. Most have deep connections to the earliest days of Mormonism. They are kept locked away and not available for public viewing.

Among them was the “pepperbox” revolver used by church founder Joseph Smith to shoot three of his killers when he was murdered at Carthage, Illinois, in 1844. According to historical accounts, he would have shot more of them but the pistol misfired three times.

My personal favorite, which Elder Neutruch encouraged me to examine at length — but not load — was a beautiful Colt .36-caliber Navy revolver, reportedly once belonging to the infamous Mormon gunman Porter Rockwell.

There is no evidence that this particular pistol was ever used by Rockwell to shoot anyone of any significance. Given the many dents and nicks on the butt, he more likely employed it as a club or a hammer.

Forget Rockwell. For sheer killing power in the Mormon world, nobody beats John Moses Browning, genius designer of firearms.

I managed to get my hands on one of Browning’s earliest prototypes of the Government Model 19 .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, a direct ancestor of the one I carried during all my years as a cop.

Browning designed a lot of military guns, including the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) favored by Bonnie and Clyde, the .30-caliber machine gun used widely in both world wars, and “Ma Deuce,” the .50-caliber machine gun still used by U.S. troops and a variety of other countries.

The best was saved for the last. We drove out to the Salt Lake Valley’s west side, where I was invited to lay hands on a personal Holy Grail — the Nauvoo Legion-era cannon known as the “Old Sow.”

(Photo courtesy Church History Library) Views of veteran artillerymen of the Nauvoo Legion posed with the "Old Sow," a cannon that was brought across the Plains with Brigham Young's pioneer company. Includes George F. Brooks, Joseph De Lyon, C.J. Thomas and others. Taken in the Tithing Yard in Salt Lake City.

The gun bears the unflattering moniker because of its homely appearance relative to the sleeker designs of guns from the early 19th century. I’ve been a huge fan ever since reading about it years ago.

The Old Sow lay unmounted from its carriage on a wooden pallet in a warehouse resembling the government one featured at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

There’s no telling what magnificent treasures may have been squirreled away in the enormous stacks of crates and shelves nearby — Jaredite stones, the sword of Laban, bones of a Nephite elephant, or even the original gold plates. I didn’t care. I only had eyes for the Sow.

As with most of history, especially religious history, lots of versions surround Old Sow’s origins. Some believe that she isn’t the true Old Sow. But I bear solemn witness … never mind.

It was a spiritual experience for me. Had it been possible to slip more than a ton of iron in my pocket, church security would still be looking for me.

The things Sonny and I could have accomplished with such a weapon boggle even the most unrefined of minds. The bore was sufficiently large enough to accommodate nearly any projectile — up to and including a frozen pig that I bet would go clear through a church steeple.

I casually mentioned the two pounds of black powder and a bucket of marbles in my vehicle, hinting to my hosts that we take the Old Sow outside and see what she could do. Thinking that I was kidding, the two Alans chuckled.

Knowing me better, Elder Neutruch was immediately serious. Drawing himself up to his full general authority stature, he said, “Robert, I say unto thee, nay.”

I suppose everyone was starting to notice the larcenous and covetous look in my eyes, because my hosts wrapped up the tour and we went back to the Church History Museum.

It was a good day, maybe the best I’ve had in “church” since, hell, ever.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.

Robert Kirby